Archive for December, 2009

Dec 28 2009

Shriek: An Afterword

Published by under Books

by Jeff VanderMeer

This book tells an imaginary history of two imaginary people in an imaginary place which is not unusual for a novel, but these are more imaginary than most. One of the two is pretty normal, but the second becomes pretty unusual. Not speculative fiction, not science fiction, but a literally ‘fantastic’ story with a bit of a surreal feel; very clever and imaginative. The story of a brother and sister told through an “afterword” to a book that the brother wrote. The afterward is written by the sister with comments added by the brother who apparently reappeared after the sister somehow abandoned the afterward. The story is well written and plays out gradually and nicely as a meandering story, not a gripping page turner. Much is implied and little is explicit.
The setting is a world with a usual dose of conflicting governments and organizations and it includes one war (ended in a “festival”), but it is not a tale of large scale action. There are a few other characters in addition to the imaginary authors, but fungi and mysterious beings who live underground but intermingle with the people are the ambiguous focus. The fungi constitute some kind of sentient entity that is gradually taking over a city. Not really taking over explicitly, but that seems inevitable (nothing is explicit).
The brother is fascinated by the fungi, goes exploring underground, and through the course of the story is merging with the fungi (at least some of them live in and on him but he has some control over them). The overall feel of the book is a little like 2001 (the movie); a migration toward something unknown, but ‘bigger’ than normal reality. As if the fungi and people coexisted in the same space and only occasionally interacted.
An unusual aspect is there was almost no technology in the story. Casual mention of telephone, boat, and automobile. Most travel is by foot. The fungi, however, can make weapons out of fungi! Makes some sense when you read it. Weird and I can’t describe it at all well, but it was a pleasant imaginative read.

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Dec 12 2009

The Fight for America 2008

Published by under Books

by Dan Balz & Haynes Johnson

I am not anything like a “political junky” and don’t watch much TV. I actively avoid listening to politicians since they tend to talk too much and say too little. Politics is important, but I can’t stomach the pompous talk, the omissions, the distortions, and the half truths. So, I tend not to be the best informed on what politicians are saying or doing. But, I like to think I investigate enough to vote sensibly and I occasionally write or call an elected official.
With that point of view, it should no be a surprise that I don’t read much about politics, but I did really enjoyed this book. It was written by two journalists who worked on the recent primary and general elections, and they provide an interesting ‘journalistic history’ of the incredibly long and costly process that eventually led to Obama being elected president. Their story starts before the candidates declare and essentially ends with the general election.
There is a lot of name dropping and explanations of who did what when, but the overall impression is of an immensely arduous process. Serious candidates are followed around continuously and every word examined for real or imagined slights or gaffs. Most anyone would make some number of stupid or insulting to someone statements in the course of two years! The press which is always looking for a story or headline is very quixotic; sometimes making a big deal and sometime ignoring a particular depending on the mood and story of the moment. Getting elected President is an unbelievable grind. Not sure how anyone survives it. Though I suppose the story just skips the inevitable down time; as there must be some of it.
Overall, the battle for the Democratic nomination was more intense and interesting than the general elections. The authors left me with the conclusion that Obama beat Clinton because he had a better strategy for collecting delegates and he executed it better. Clinton, on the other hand was probably over confident and certainly over staffed with talented people who didn’t server her well. They fought and schemed, but that was partly her fault for not organizing them well (and Bill C. Inadvertently helped to stir the pot.).
The world of political operative, planners, and schemers seems to a small one. The people who work on campaigns seem to jump from candidate or campaign, and to a lesser degree form party to party as candidates join or abandon the contests and they all know one another, have fought one another and sometimes greatly dislike one another. A small but probably very influential industry.
One specific I have to mention. Edward Kennedy’s reported advice to Obama when discussing whether or not to run: “You can’t get elected with a voting record!!” so run now. If you’ve had to vote on tough issues or emotional issues, you’ll create too many people who won’t ever vote for you. That’s a sad but probably accurate observation and portends more off the wall new comers like Palin, Fiorina, Whitman, etc.; people who have made a name elsewhere.
All in all the book tells an interesting tale. Not always inspiring, but with some inspiring snippets of speeches (primarily by Obama but also McCain’s concession speech).

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Dec 02 2009

Jude the Obscure

Published by under Books,retro

by Thomas Hardy
This novel is over 100 years old, but was still a good ‘read’. A somewhat polemic novel that was quite critical of the contemporary late Victorian cultural institutions; especially scholastic and religious. It tells the tale of a doomed romance between two young cousins. Doomed by societal pressures around appropriate behavior; especially around marriage. Apparently, this novel was viewed as scandalous when it was written, and the negative reception it received convinced Hardy to stop writing novels!
Its criticism of religion, the scholastic world, and marriage have become very conventional:
– An English church more concerned about apparent form and obedience than religious beliefs.
– A scholastic world which is elitist and give too much precedence to the moneyed and powerful while ignoring ‘true’ learning.
– Marriage as a tyrannical relationship which kills ‘love’ more than encourages it; especially for women.
Overall, the story is a pretty dismal tale: a forced marriage, an impoverished youth who dreams of being a scholar, a loveless marriage, a doomed love that ends disastrously, and murder and suicide. Sounds depressing but mainly it wasn’t. It felt truthful though it was pretty easy to see where the story was heading. Keep in mind that this description doesn’t do the book justice, and if you want a better description of the story just google it.

PS. Rather than read this book, I listened to a Libravox.com recording of it. A first for me. The sound and quality of the readers were quite uneven, but it was a good way to ‘read’ the book given my post operation situation at the time. All the libravox recordings are free and in the public domain. A good thing to encourage.

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